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Devotion to the Angels

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I do not hesitate to say that devotion to the angels is one of the hallmarks of being a true Christian. It was an angel who first appeared to our Lady to announce her conception of Jesus Christ at Nazareth. It was an angel who appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem to tell them that the Messiah had been born. It was an angel who consoled our Lord in His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was an angel who told the women who visited the tomb in which Christ had been buried, that the Savior was risen from the dead. It was angels who told the disciples staring into the sky at Christ’s ascension that He would return from heaven to earth even as He had ascended from earth to heaven. It was an angel who delivered Peter from prison where he was chained for his proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. It will be angels who will announce the coming of Christ on the last day of time and the first day of eternity to judge the living and the dead.

Our focus in this conference is on Devotion to the Angels. Before we go any further, I would like to identify what devotion to the angel means.

  • Devotion to the angels means venerating the angels.

  • Devotion to the angels means praying to the angels.

  • Devotion to the angels means promoting the apostolate to the angels.

  • Devotion to the angels means imitating the angels.

My purpose in this conference will be to explain each of these four forms of angelic devotion, and apply our explanation to the practical, day by day, living of our Catholic faith.


Veneration of the Angels

To venerate the angels means two things. It means to know who the angels are and to respond to this faith knowledge with our love.

If anyone still wonders why we should be giving so many conferences on the angels, let me assure him that it is positively necessary in our day. Literally hundreds of books, periodicals, movies, and television programs, are flooding today’s market with so much angelism that we better understand what the Catholic Church teaches about the angels.

There are two obvious sources for authentic knowledge about the angels. They are divine revelation and the teaching of the Church’s tradition over the centuries.

One of the surprises for lay Catholics today is the preoccupation with the angels which characterized the life of Catholics in the believing centuries of the Middle Ages. There were Church definitions in angelology; there were papal and episcopal documents; there were extensive treatises in theology dealing with the faithful and fallen angels. St. Thomas Aquinas is called the angelic doctor mainly because he published tens of thousands of words on the nature, and function, and role of the angels in the life of the human race.

One of the heartening signs of a conversion in materialistic countries like America is the rising avalanche of print and the media on the angels.

We are asking: “Who are the angels?” The angels are persons, created by God, who have a mind and a will, but do not have the limitations of a material body.

Like the human race, the angels had to prove their fidelity to God by submitting their free wills to His divine Majesty.

Our concentration in this conference is on the good angels who remained faithful in their obedience to God. These angels are constantly adoring the Holy Trinity, even as they are enjoying the vision of the Triune God.

However, they are angels because they are messengers of God’s providence in our lives. They are His angels to enlighten our minds and inspire our wills. Why? So that they might bring us to that celestial Jerusalem where they are waiting for us to join them.

Venerating the angels, we must remind ourselves, is not only believing in their existence and generous service in our favor. We venerate the angels by responding to the graces which they bring from God to us. They are channels of God’s love to us. We are to use these graces and thus show our grateful love for God in return.


Praying to the Angels

Until the sixteenth century when Protestantism broke with Catholic unity, prayer to the angels was part of the staple diet of Catholic piety. Living in a culture which has been so deeply protestantized, we must brace ourselves and not be misled by the errors of those who deny that we should pray to the angels.

Praying to the angels means talking with the angels; telling them how we admire their nearness to God and look forward to joining them after we finish our trial here on earth. Praying to the angels is thanking them for the many favors they have done for us over the years and how much we appreciate their angelic care for our needs. Praying to the angels is asking them for what we need. Certainly we could go directly to God with our petitions. But we know what sinners we are and how close the angels are to the all holy One. We are therefore sure that their nearness to God makes them powerful intercessors on our behalf. Praying to the angels is begging them to plead for us at the throne of the merciful God whom we have offended and from whom we hope to obtain His forgiving mercy.

All of this is locked up in the single phrase, “Praying to the angels”. You might change the preposition if you wish, and say that we pray through the angels to God, being assured that their nearness to Him makes their influence with Him greater than would be our addressing God by ourselves. If Christ in His agony was strengthened by an angel of the Lord, who are we to think we can dispense with angelic assistance in our lives?


The Angelic Apostolate

I can honestly tell you that the conferences that we are having on the angels is unembarrasingly an angelic apostolate. I sincerely believe that what the world today needs is a deeper, clearer, stronger and more zealous devotion to the angels than ever before since the time of Christ.

Why do I say this? Because the angels are such a powerful militia for protecting a world that is being widely seduced by the fallen angels.

In our next two conferences we shall deal at length with Christian Faith and Demonology and The Devil in the Modern World. For the present we wish to examine more carefully into what the angelic apostolate really means.

By definition, an apostolate is the zealous effort to bring God’s grace to others through the practice of the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy.

You might ask “What do the angels have to do with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?” The answer is, everything!

The seven corporal works of mercy are: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to visit those in prison, and to bury the dead.

These works of mercy are the seven conditions on which Christ prophesied our salvation would depend. It is not coincidental that, on the last day He will tell those who are lost, “ Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels”(Matthew 25:41).

Why will human beings be lost? Because during their life on earth they had allowed themselves to be seduced by the devil into selfishness and failed to practice the works of mercy.

The good angels are especially chosen by God to protect us from the self-idolatry which ignores the needs of others and thus paves the way for the eternal loss of a heavenly destiny.

The good angels protect us from the selfishness of the devil, so we might practice the corporal works of mercy. But the good angels also inspire us to practice the spiritual works of mercy. They are: converting the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, and praying for the living and the dead.

As twenty centuries of Christianity tell us, our salvation also depends on our practice of the spiritual works of mercy. If anything, the devil is more anxious to prevent us from practicing the spiritual than the corporal works of mercy. We need the help of the good angels to protect us from the devil’s instigation on both levels.

I spent last week in Haiti, giving instructions to the Missionaries of Charity. While there, I visited one of the five homes for the dying conducted by the Sisters. I administered more infant baptisms, more anointings of the dying, and gave more absolutions in a few hours than I had given in the past five years. Here is a nation dreadfully in need of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and there are so few dedicated Catholics available to meet what I can only call superhuman needs, in a subhuman society, literally dying for lack of Christian charity. Do not tell me this is not the work of the evil spirit. Do not tell me that we do not need to promote the angelic apostolate among the faithful.

We said that devotion to the angels includes the apostolate to the angels. This should be taken literally. Of course we must first develop our own deep veneration for the angels and frequent prayer to the angels. But we dare not stop there. We are to do everything in our power to inspire others to follow our example. The apostolate to the angels, I sincerely believe, is one of the most gravely needed in contemporary Christianity.

The angels are sent by God to us. We in turn are being sent by the angels to others to bring to everyone whose life we touch a deeper veneration of the angels, a more fervent prayer to the angels, and a more zealous dependence on the angels to protect a world that is immersed in self-adoration to the rejection of the most elemental laws of God.


Imitation of the Angels

Humanly speaking the last persons you would expect to imitate are the angels. There are people, good Catholics that I know, who do not even realize that the angels are persons. How could you imitate someone who was not even an individual intelligent being, which is the standard definition of a person.

Moreover, angels do not have bodies. They do not have bodily emotions. They do not have eyes or ears or lips or hands or feet. The angels in heaven do not have temptations. They cannot sin. They have no inordinate passions or sinful urges.

Can we still say that the angels are imitable? Is there any intelligible sense in which we not only can but should follow their example?

Here we enter an area as wide as the ocean and as high as the stars. Yet, there is more than passing value in understanding something, no matter how little, of what it means to imitate the angels and how this imitation should be put into practice.

Angels as Contemplatives.  All that our faith tells us about the angels is that they constantly behold the face of God. They are contemplating the Holy Trinity.

In the vocabulary of Catholic Christianity, contemplation is the enjoyable admiration of perceived truth (St. Augustine). Contemplation is the elevation of the mind resting on God (St. Bernard). Contemplation is the simple intuition of divine truth that produces love (St. Thomas).

On all these terms, the angels are certainly living a life of intense contemplation. They are not only always thinking of God, they are always loving God with the full intensity of their being. More still, they are seeing God with an intuitive vision in which God is so close to their minds that not even angelic thoughts stand between themselves and the most Holy Trinity. Needless to say, this vision of God’s infinity fills them with a joy for which no words in the human vocabulary can describe.

The angels are constantly praising God, constantly adoring the Creator in a most perfect form of prayer that only the celestial hierarchy can give the Divine Majesty.

Angels Active on Earth.  By all human calculation, the ecstatic prayer in which the angels are engaged should preoccupy them so completely that they could not do anything else. We might even say they should not be doing anything else. After all, what is more sublime than prayerful contemplation?

But the angels are not only contemplatives. They are contemplatives in action. As often as we may have heard the expression, “Contemplation in action,” this is a constant reality. Our faith tells us that the very name angel means “messenger.” The angels, as Christ tells us, who constantly behold the face of the Father are also constantly engaged in what we may call the angelic apostolate of serving our human needs.

The Lesson for Us.  We are speaking about imitating the angels. We are asking ourselves how the angels are to be models for us to imitate and patterns that we should follow.

The single most important lesson that we should learn from the angels is that union with God in prayer is never to be divorced from our service of others. Among the early Fathers of the Church, St. Clement of Alexandria could not be more clear.

In every place, but not ostensibly and visibly to the multitude, the perfect Christian will pray. While engaged in walking, in conversation, while in silence, while engaged in reading and, in work that needs to be done, in every situation he prays (Stromata, VII, 7).

In other words, so far from serving others being incompatible with prayer, prayer should be the soul of everything we do in our practice of Christian charity.

Another saint tells us that, “Prayer is the uplifting of the soul to God”(St. Nilus, On Prayer, 35). Who would dare say that no matter what we are doing for others, whether engaged in conversation, or preparing a meal, typing at a computer, or teaching a class - we should not be simultaneously lifting our soul to God?

St. Thomas Aquinas explains how union with God through prayer can be combined with the practice of charity to others. When we pray, our minds are united with God. But our prayer deeply influences our will. Our mind can therefore be fixed on the Lord while our wills are choosing whatever actions the Lord wants us to perform.

One more quotation from St. Clement of Alexandria. He lived in the third century, in the height of the persecution of the Church. He knew what it means to combine contemplation and action. He told his contemporaries, “The Christian prays in every situation, in his walks or recreation, in his dealings with others, in silence, in reading, in everything he does where his mind is active.”

Our focus, remember, is the imitation of angels. They are our paradigm, our constant example, of combining union with God in prayer with the service of our neighbor in charity.

How to Imitate the Angels.  I have saved the hardest question for last. How are we to imitate the angels in their remarkable ability to pray while working?

Before we say anything else, let us be sure that we are not talking in abstractions. The founder of consecrated life in the Western world was St. Benedict. The motto which he gave his followers and, through them, to the rest of the world, is a simple imperative, Ora et Labora, “Pray and Work.”

Notice what comes first. It is the duty to pray. Notice what comes second. It is the duty to work. Our souls are to be united with God after the example of the angels, and then, but only then, are we ready to serve the needs of the persons that God puts into our lives.

The hard question is how to combine these two. Dare I say that we have no choice. We can be busy in serving others, in fact, we can be preoccupied with what they need. But what is the main reason for our practice of charity towards other people? Is it to perform some chore, or serve some obvious human need? No, as the angels so clearly teach us, our underlying reason is to be channels of grace to the people whom we serve. No matter what else we may do for others, if we are not communicators of God’s grace to those whom we serve, we are not really serving what people mainly need. Their greatest and constant need is to receive light from God for their minds and strength from God for their wills. And our role in life is to be conduits of this grace to every single person who even momentarily touches our lives.

What is the key to being a channel of grace to others? The key is our own union with God in constant prayer.

This statement may be frightening when we first hear it. But it is the formula for living a truly Christian life. We are praying always if our wills are always ready to do the will of God. Everything else follows with simple logic.

Surely the angels are always disposed to do the will of God, whose face they are always beholding in celestial ecstasy. But that is precisely the secret. Our union with God in prayer is the condition for our living an angelic life of service in this valley of tears. We shall do only as much real good for others as our hearts are united in prayerful union with God.


Prayer

Angel of God, my guardian and guide, teach me what it means to be devoted to you and your angel companions in heaven. Teach me to combine constant union with God in prayer with a constant readiness to be of service to others. Show me how I will be only as generous to others and only as effective in meeting their needs as I am united with our Lord in striving to do His will. I need your help to be a contemplative in action. I need your example to learn that no matter how busy I am here on earth, my mind and my heart must always be in heaven with God. Amen.


Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica






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